Amid Soldiers and Mines in the Korean DMZ, School Is in Session





TAESUNG FREEDOM VILLAGE, Korean demilitarized zone — Kim Han-seul, a fifth grader, has the most heavily armed crossing guard in the world.

Each morning, his school bus picks him up at a bustling town outside the demilitarized zone that separates South and North Korea. It drives through wire fences, tank traps and military checkpoints along a road flanked by minefields.

After a 50-minute drive escorted by a military jeep with a United Nations flag, the bus unloads Han-seul and a score of other students at Taesung Elementary, the only school inside the Korean demilitarized zone, a heavily armed no man’s land guarded on both sides by nearly two million troops facing off in an uneasy truce.

“People say that if a war broke out, I am going to be the first to be killed,” said Han-seul, an 11-year-old with horn-rimmed glasses. “But I say, if we haven’t had another war since the Korean War in the 1950s, why would you expect a war to happen now? I don’t have a worry in the world.”

Then he hurried off to join friends on a trampoline in the schoolyard.

Nearby, armed South Korean soldiers stood guard behind the corners of school buildings.

This two-story island of childhood innocence is the proudest part of Taesung Freedom Village, the only pocket of land inhabited by South Korean civilians inside the 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone.

For decades, the village and its school have symbolized the uneasy peace on the border. To keep them populated, South Korea has given the villagers incentives for staying, exempting them from taxes and mandatory military service. Taesung is one of South Korea’s richest villages, its farmers allotted 10 times as much farmland as their average counterparts elsewhere in the country.

Still, by 2007, Taesung was succumbing to the problem plaguing every other rural village in South Korea: its population was shrinking and aging as young people left for college and jobs in cities. The number of elementary school students dwindled to a mere six in 2007 from around 25 decades ago, making the school a prime target for a cost-cutting program that called for shutting down and merging rural schools depleted of students.

But Taesung is no ordinary school. Its presence gives a determined look of normality to a village where few things are normal...


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